Jewish Americans and the Democratic Party

ImageA common stereotype involving Jewish Americans is that they are single-issue voters whose support goes to the candidate with the most hawkish views on Israel. Furthermore, it is widely accepted that the Republican Party is generally the more pro-Israel party. So how many times in the last 100 years have Republican Presidential candidates won the Jewish vote? Once. In 1920, James Cox lost the Jewish vote as well as the Presidency to Warren G. Harding. Since then, Democrats have claimed the majority of the Jewish vote in 23 straight Presidential elections.

Leading up to the 2012 Presidential Election, media reports (Like this one titled “Does Obama have a Jewish Voter Problem?”) began to question if Barack Obama was losing the Jewish vote. This thought process originated following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s staunch rebuke of President Obama’s proposal for Israel to accept 1967 borders with Palestine. The media speculation intensified when a Republican won the special election for New York’s 9th congressional district, which encompasses large Jewish communities, for the first time in almost 90 years. Ultimately, though, it was all for naught as Obama still won 69% of the Jewish vote. And although this was the lowest percentage since 1988, it was still a commanding victory for Democrats.

So why do Jewish Americans continually vote for the Democratic Party? Simply put, they are not single-issue voters.

One contributing factor as to why Jewish Americans tend to vote this way is because of the extensive anti-Semitism that Jews have faced in the past. For example, during the early 20th century, Jews began immigrating to America in droves, all looking for better lives. As Jenna Weissman Joselit put it, “amid a grinding cycle of poverty and intensifying anti-Jewish prejudice, eastern European Jews had soured on the Old World.” In the beginning, though, America was not the modern “Promised Land” some hoped they were entering. Instead, they were broke, forced to live in ghettos, and outcasts in the predominantly Christian nation. This is precisely why American Jews tend to sympathize with minorities and the less fortunate. This also includes political issues that affect minorities, which are typically a higher priority in the Democratic Party. When considering this, it is no surprise that Franklin D. Roosevelt, mastermind of the New Deal, garnered the highest support among Jews of any U.S. President.

As we have discussed in class, with each passing generation Jews become more and more “Americanized.” If a rabbi from the 18th or 19th century were to see today’s Jewish community he may not even recognize it. A good illustration of this transformation was the demise of Rabbi Jacob Joseph. In 1888, Joseph became the first Chief Rabbi of New York. This was a huge moment in American Jewish history as people flocked to hear his standing-room only sermons. Soon thereafter though, as Joselit discusses in her book, people began to tire of Rabbi Joseph’s Old World persona. This ultimately led to a smaller role in the Jewish community for Rabbi Joseph and his eventual retirement. This story is a parallel to the growing distance between American Jews and their homeland. This means current events happening in Israel are not as high a priority as they may have been in the past.

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